Seeking Shostakovich (From Wit . . . to What?)

Bolshevik, by Boris Kustodiev

Bolshevik, by Boris Kustodiev

I don’t have a nose for satire. I miss the cues. I mistook X J Kennedy’s satirical poem Nude Descending a Staircase for an homage to Marcel Duchamp’s eponymous painting, when in fact Kennedy was “taking the piss” (a gesture Duchamp would have understood).

At first I couldn’t fathom, given my satire deficiency, what led Shostakovich to choose Nikolai Gogol’s The Nose as the subject for an opera. After all, the story concerns a petty bureaucrat who wakes up one morning to find his nose missing and spends the rest of the story chasing it down. But on learning more about the tenor of the times, even I couldn’t miss that Gogol’s blend of humor and humanism was right on the nose (so to speak). As Shostakovich wrote of both Gogol and Nikolai Leskov, “Their heroes make it possible to laugh uproariously and to cry bitter tears.” [Fay 970]

Gogol was one of Shostakovich’s favorite authors. He could quote whole swaths of it from memory, as in this wartime reminiscence of Shostakovich talking about a scene from Dead Souls:

“He ordered that the washing utensils be brought up to him, and for an excessively long time he scrubbed both his cheeks with soap, inflating them from inside his mouth with his tongue; then taking the towel from the shoulders of the inn servant, he dried his fleshy face on all sides, starting from behind his ears, snorting first a couple of times in the servant’s face.” Can you imagine this scene? Here I would use a bassoon, trumpet and drum. Then when he puts on his shirt-front, “having plucked two hairs from his nose”, I’d use the piccolo—“and naturally found himself wearing a dress-coat the colour of whortle-berries shot with shiny lights.” [Wilson 193]

So what was a poor composer to do when his first commission came from the—surely wholly lacking in irony—Propaganda Division of the State Publishers’ Music Section to compose a symphony “in honor of the tenth anniversary of the Revolution”? [Fay 582] Not only that, but the Second Symphony’s final movement involved setting text Shostakovich found “repulsive.” [Fay 589] Shostakovich’s Third Symphony wasn’t commissioned, but also gave a nod to revolutionary intent as part “of a projected cycle of symphonic compositions dedicated to the revolutionary calendar.” [Fay 753]

Shostakovich is reputed to have said that his Second and Third Symphonies were “completely unsatisfactory.” I’m unable to confirm the quotation, but his admonition to Rostropovich that “should he record the symphonies, ‘please start with the Fourth’!” [Wilson 529], is to the same effect.

Richard Whitehouse made the observation in his liner notes to the Petrenko/Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Naxos CDs that “[t]he Second and Third represent a reckless accommodation between modernist means and revolutionary ends.” Certainly the balance between what Shostakovich wanted to compose and what the State would sanction was precarious. I wonder if even Gogol could have bridged the gap.

Listening List

Prufrockian Impressions: I didn’t intend to listen to these symphonies, nor did David Nice include them in his suggested list. In the end, I couldn’t resist discovering what Shostakovich’s “not-so-good” sounded like, as well as his “best.” I heard interesting ideas in each symphony, but I didn’t find the pieces compelling listening as a whole. I think of them as pieces from the creative laboratory, experiments that, while they might not work in themselves, spin out ideas that could bear fruit in later works. For that reason alone, I’m glad good recordings exist for the historical record, even if I’m unlikely to return to them.

A listening list on Spotify may be found here.

On YouTube

Second Symphony (“To October”) (1927) (For the curious, the choral movement starts at 12:55; its text may be found, in Russian and English, here. If nothing else can be said of it, Shostakovich certainly got even with the bombast of the text.)

The chorus is ushered in by the sound of a factory whistle. The Russian Revolution was associated from the first with turning an agrarian, Russian society into an industrial one, so the factory whistle was a powerful symbol. Shostakovich actually wrote parts for several factory whistles of different pitches and loudnesses, but, recognizing that factory whistles aren’t always ready to hand, he also wrote the factory-whistle notes into the wind instrument parts as a substitute.

The quotation is from Howard Posner’s excellent article in the LA Philharmonic database about the Second and Third Symphonies and the tenor of the times in which they were composed, which may be found here.

Third Symphony (First of May) (1929; first performance 1930) 

Shostakovich told fellow composer and good friend Vissarion Shebalin “that he was intrigued by the notion of a symphony in which not a single theme is repeated.” [Fay 760] The composition succeeds in that mission, but not, to my mind, as an enduring work.

Bonus Tracks:

Polka, from the ballet The Golden Age (1930) (piano transcription)

The Polka, “a satirical vignette of Western bourgeois prattle about disarmament and world peace entitled “Once Upon a Time in Geneva . . . (Angel of the World),” from Act III of the ballet) became one of the composer’s most recognized gems in his own transcription for piano . . .”. [Fay 910]

The Percussion Interlude from The Nose (1927-1928)

I’ve posted the Interlude previously, but this video from Florida State University is great, as you can see the percussionists perform the work.


Credits: The quotations from Wilson and Fay may be found here and here. The “completely unsatisfactory” quotation is cited as from here, but as my copy of the book never arrived, I can’t confirm. The remaining quotations are from the sources indicated in the text. The reproduction of “Bolshevik,” by Boris Kustodiev, may be found here. Kustodiev also painted the young Shostakovich. The portrait may be found here.

18 thoughts on “Seeking Shostakovich (From Wit . . . to What?)

  1. David N

    Is part of that title a neat homage to Griboyedov’s Woe from Wit, or am I being super-subtle?

    Kustodiev always makes me jolly, especially those fairground scenes.

    I do feel a tad guilty about passing over the Second, at least. The interesting stuff is in the first half: the polytonal counterpoint is quite a riot and as much a touchstone of 1920s Soviet modernism as the percussion galop from The Nose. And boy, there are so many recordings of it, not all parts of cycles (Rostropovich, needless to say, ignored DDS’s injunction several times over, live at least). And without these riots, I doubt if Prokofiev would have composed the true ambiguous masterpiece of Soviet agitprop, the Cantata for the 20th Century of the October Revolution, chipping in with typical bad timing a decade too late for that sort of thing.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: As to Griboyedov, alas, only a monkey at the keys, happening on a title so close to Woe From Wit (I did, though, run across the play in my internet “travels”–a Russian satiric play, wouldn’t you know, and a classic, it appears.) And I can see why Kustodiev makes you jolly, all that color and life.

      Now, about feeling guilty about the 2d, do not! While I quickly realized I wanted to give every symphony at least one listen, it was helpful to have some tentative guideposts, which your suggested listening list provided. As to the Second, my ears aren’t schooled enough to recognize polytonal counterpoint, but I sure could hear the inventiveness and pure having fun in the first part, and what you write about its significance to musical history is interesting indeed.

      There are, as always, layers and layers of listening, and, if a piece is rich enough, each layer will draw out something new, won’t it? I was curious, on listening to the Second, for example, whether and to what extent Shostakovich takes ideas from the Second and uses them elsewhere. That, of course, is a study on its own!

      On the historical end, I’m curious about that choice of text. From what I read, it’s not clear how it was chosen for the piece, though maybe I missed it. What I do picture as I listen and think about Shostakovich’s view of the text, is this so-smart, can-do-anything young composer throwing his pen/pencil in the air in disgust, then catching it up again with an OK, you horrible text, I’m going to give you exactly what you deserve. And then he does!

      The piece as a whole, though, is like the curate’s egg: good in parts. For that reason it’s not one I’d likely come back to just for “good listening.” To make a study of what it achieves and what its place is in musical history is another matter entirely, of course.

      1. David N

        Brilliant: ‘this so-smart, can-do-anything young composer throwing his pen/pencil in the air in disgust, then catching it up again with an OK, you horrible text, I’m going to give you exactly what you deserve’.

        Right, I don’t think we know any more about the choice of text. As for the style, it’s also there in the chaotic last act of The Golden Age (worth listening to Rozhdestvensky’s complete recording, for which I wrote the notes and was frustrated in trying to track down a complete scenario – details were in short supply then, even in Russian). And the seeming randomness reaches its apogee in the far, far more inventive Fourth which is the masterpiece of that early avant-garde period, and the end.

        Once again I admire your curiosity so much, you’re off on an Open University-style term of study, motivated entirely by your own instinct for learning. Each year this time I resolve to learn a new language, take up a new study, and I only do it superficially.

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          David: So much food for thought here, and as I continue on in my “self-study.” (It’s helpful, BTW, not to any longer be working-for-pay to engage in this sort of thing . . . ) In your comment about the Fourth, I’m reminded, yet again, of Flora Litvinova’s diary note on hearing the Fourth and of course her exchange with Shostakovich and what he said about it retrospectively. Your comment here, “the seeming randomness reaches its apogee in the far, far more inventive Fourth which is the masterpiece of that early avant-garde period, and the end,” is particularly striking on that point. And this is where I butt up against the limitations of “self-study,” and particularly writing about the results. The ear can tell me plenty about whether a work succeeds or fails for me; where a piece has clear programmatic elements, there’s plenty I can learn about it without recourse to technical musical knowledge; and of course, with Shostakovich and his times, there’s always an interesting “back story” to convey. But the more I pursue this, the more intrigued I become with how the music is put together, and, without technical musical knowledge, I’m hampered in that pursuit.

          In the case of your comment on the Fourth, as an example, I think of those last two movements of the Sixth. While the free and open ethos of the avant-garde period has certainly come to an end, my ear hears him still drawing on and developing ideas from that period. Technical knowledge would, I think, tell me a lot more about whether and to what extent that is the case. Liner and program notes are tremendously useful, but then the question is how to go beyond merely “receiving” wisdom so as to follow musical trails of my own. (It’s fascinating, by the way, to see how often, particularly from the Fourth forward, there is a tendency in liner and program notes to resort to historical/political interpretation rather than writing about the music itself, as if everything Shostakovich wrote was somehow a “message in a bottle,” which I think sells his music terribly short.)

  2. T.

    Ah, I was just talking about Gogol’s The Nose yesterday. I read it after we studied William Carlos Williams’ Smell!.

    Thanks for this, Sue.


  3. Britta

    Dear Sue,
    thank you for enlightening about those symphonies! I am not very good at detecting the differences in quality – but I can in satire :-) , so everybody has other merits. Gogol himself, as you will know, had suffered under his nose (very long and very pointed – maybe that led to his satire too..)

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Britta: I did NOT know about Gogol’s nose! So many gaps in my knowledge; so little time. I’m reading Dead Souls now and seem to be underlining line after line. Here’s one: “Here he lapsed into a brief silence, to which Proshka replied with silence.” I don’t know why, but that just makes me laugh. And here’s another, in the “musical” line: “. . . he fell to sucking on his chibouk so vigorously that it finally began to wheeze like a bassoon.”

  4. Mark Kerstetter

    As I take time to listen to the symphonies, let me observe other areas of your post.

    “Certainly the balance between what Shostakovich wanted to compose and what the State would sanction was precarious.”

    -this is exactly why I find Shostakovich so fascinating and am looking forward to your thoughts on later symphonies. It’s probably entirely coincidental, and I don’t want to steer your blog into terrain you’re not interested in going into, but I welcome a topic like this at a time when there is a troubling debate on whether or not to boycott the Sochi Olympics. I realize they are 2 completely different situations, but, for me, Shostakovich’s example teaches how one can preserve one’s soul and in the long run overcome what looks like an unbearable situation (gay Olympians might look to this example).

    It’s not apparent that Kennedy’s poem is satire until you learn that Duchamp hated the reputation he felt painters had at the time (that they were stupid). He wanted artists to be considered intellectuals, and said he wanted to put painting “back into the service of the mind.” As we know, Duchamp’s influence on culture went far beyond this humble goal, and morphed into an exclusive intellectual hold over the art act while disregarding aesthetics, the senses (including the body/earth) and the emotions. It is this grotesque distortion that informs Kennedy’s satire. The “nude” is dehumanized (no thoughts in her head). And of course he laughs at the notion that such a painting can say anything significant about movement.

    P.S. halfway through my first listen of #3 and it sounds really nice. #2 not so impressive.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: The Olympics and much related are on my mind as I read and write about Shostakovich (and thinking back on my earlier reading about Prokofiev). What I am struck most by in each composer is the phenomenal will to create and to find a path that would allow that to continue, with integrity intact. They did not, either of them, emerge unscathed. Neither heroes nor villains, but fully human, they struggled, but kept at it, and left us a legacy of brilliant music that has and will endure despite it all. I don’t know what lessons may be drawn from their experiences for the present, but it will be interesting to have your views as we go along. You also may be interested, on the subject of the Olympics and related matters, in this: The Stephen Fry and Joyce DiDonato links are excellent, and of course on the blog itself, a lively discussion ensued.

      Now, as for Kennedy, you make me feel much better about my satire-detecting lack, at least in this case, so thank you for that. And your responses to Shos #2 and #3 are tantalizing. May have to go back and take another listen to both, after all, at some point.

  5. newleafsite

    Ah, the polka, familiar to us all from early childhood! We danced around our living rooms to polkas, even before we learned the real steps. Fun inclusion in a post where even the post author can’t laud the main events. And fun of you to find one we’ve heard before, during those couple of odd moments at the end an NPR program, just before the news or announcements, and include it here. “I know this piece,” I am able to think, feeling like one of the cognescenti…
    An aspect of this post which I find of particular interest is in the comments you chose by Mr. S. about the scene by Gogol. I wonder about the talent that allows a person to compose music. How does he hear original music in his head? Where does it come from? A person may not have a drawing talent but can compose a picture with stick figures. Can’t dance? You can still sway a little to the tune. But composing music? Can anyone explain how that comes about? In the reminiscence you quote, S. doesn’t say. But he does hint at where he gets some of his ideas. When he quotes the description of a man scrubbing his face, it comes to him: “Can you imagine this scene? Here I would use a bassoon, trumpet and drum.” Nose hair plucking? Piccolo! (Obviously.) Still we don’t know from where S. hears music, swirling around in the atmosphere within or without of his own head. But we begin to glimpse how he translates it into sounds so that we, too, can listen. On to trying to understand the language! — Elizabeth

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Elizabeth: Ah, this is wonderful. The questions you ask are exactly the ones I have–and the Gogol passage struck me for the same reason (“Piccolo! (Obviously.)” That’s one ironic parenthetical not lost on me . . .). To “speak” in the language of music, how does someone come to that and be able to do it? With Shostakovich, I ask myself again and again, how did he hear that? What was in his head (and so completely–he apparently could hear the whole of an orchestration in his head from early on)?

      Dylan Mattingly was the first composer to give me a bit of a key, when he wrote: “Music is my optimal language, and I want it to express my world.” I’ve never forgotten that. When I embarked on the series that became “This Life in Music,” it was fascinating to learn how composers and performers got their start, and how it is that sounds and music started swirling in their heads. I loved Lucy Dhegrae’s recounting how her mom was a singer, and also “loveably goofy and we girls had a lot of fun with our voices at home: imitating the different accents on NPR, harmonizing with the vacuum or hairdryer, strange pet voices, imitating bird calls, and so on.” Doesn’t that sound like a fun house in which to grow up?

      Music, to my mind, is a communicative art, and I find it remarkable how, at its best, instrumental music is able to communicate directly to us as listeners without a word being said (or sung). For some, music is the highest and best way to communicate. Here’s Dylan Mattingly again: “Music is, above all else, a manner of expression—sometimes an attempt at preserving a single moment, sometimes a political statement, sometimes the only possible recreation of an innermost feeling, and sometimes a necessary outburst of exploding creativity—if done well, music is a method, slightly less imperfect than words, of understanding the life of another human. When you listen to music, whether intentional or not, the composer is giving you just a small slice of their life, and for just that moment you can feel what it’s like to exist as someone else.” I find that such a lovely thought.

      1. newleafsite

        I am so struck by your response. It gives me a sudden insight into music, in general, and your own relationship to it, in particular. I hadn’t considered instrumental music as a communicative art. People speak about literature and poetry in terms of what the writer was trying to say, and so even about visual arts. In teen years I developed an attitude that art is open to individual interpretation – which I still believe – but I now think that I allowed that to separate a lot of art from myself: my interpretation, what the art meant to me, to my life, was all. If there was a breach between known intention and my reception, it was my own reception which remained important to me. And I still think it’s one valid way of enjoying, valuing art.

        But communication? Vocal music is an obvious attempt. But I never thought of instrumental as such – emotional expression, yes, but not as a way to convey a specific message. As you quote Dylan Mattingly, “When you listen to music, whether intentional or not, the composer is giving you just a small slice of their life, and for just that moment you can feel what it’s like to exist as someone else,” you call it a lovely thought. I echo your sentiment: I love this. Finding a way, even for just a moment, to feel what it’s like to exist as someone else, is transcendent. The ability to compose the art that makes it possible comes as a gift. But learning to listen with openness and allow the experience to enter your self – as you obviously can: this is inspiring.

        Returning to Mattingly, you choose an enticing quote, “Music is my optimal language, and I want it to express my world.” This inclusion raises the question, of course, whether you as a music lover would say that music expresses your world, and if you have what feels like a signature piece? — Elizabeth

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          Elizabeth: A great question, and very hard to answer. I don’t have a “signature” piece, my mode is more one of discovery of music I haven’t heard or focused on before, whether contemporary or older, and finding pieces that “speak” to me on an ongoing basis. At the end of the past two years, I’ve put up a post,”My Year in Music,” in which I’ve tried to identify highlights from the listening year. I can’t imagine what I’ll do this year, as the list grows and grows, but here is last year’s, to give an idea: Responding to your other, so interesting, observations: I don’t actually understand Dylan Mattingly as saying instrumental music is conveying a specific message–I think your idea of emotional expression may be more to the point, actually. Communicating from one to another, yes, but open to a multitude of interpretations, just as you describe for the visual arts. (I think the same applies to poetry, and probably to all the arts.)

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Steve: I learned of the poem–and that it was meant as satirical–in the Modern and Contemporary American Poetry course I took last year (and again this year, though I can’t do it with the same intensity). (Excellent, and free course, from UPenn, BTW, link is here: Mark Kerstetter, in his comment here, makes the point that it may not be possible to recognize the poem as satire without knowing the “back story.” I certainly didn’t see it!

  6. shoreacres

    I rather liked the poem myself, although context can do funny/strange things. I was fine with it until I got to the lines:

    …her lips imprint the swinging air
    that parts to let her parts go by….

    All I could think of at that point was Lena Dunham and her cronies with their blather over “lady parts”. Such a silly phrase – although far better than some of the costumes that have been worn around Washington of late. ;)

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